More than a quarter of calories consumed by children are 'empty', new study warns

Caroline Allen
Contributor
The new research should serve as a warning. (Getty Images)

More than a quarter of the calories that children consume are “empty”, a new study has warned.

Empty calories, which relate to the likes of fizzy drinks and junk food are described this way because of the low nutritional value they give. Many contain added sugars and solid fats.

The study by Dr Edwina Wambogo, a recent postdoctoral Cancer Research Training Award Fellow with the National Cancer Institute, discovered the main culprits of these so-called empty calories as being soft and fruit drinks, cookies, brownies, pizza and ice cream.

Researchers used data from a nine year study of children’s eating habits.

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“Our findings suggest a need for continued research into what children and adolescents are eating.

“Examining the whole landscape of available foods and beverages for children and adolescents can help inform new ways to promote healthier eating,” Dr Wambogo explained.

The study, which examined the eating habits of children between the ages of two and 18, found that there was a decrease in empty calories being consumed over the nine year period.

Despite the decrease, over 25% of the calories children consumed could be described as “empty”.

Explaining the decline, Dr Wambogo said: “Over the time period studied, we observed a downward trend in the percent of calories coming from empty calories without any associated decrease in total calorie intake.

“This trend was mostly driven by declines in added sugars intake, including those from soft drinks and fruit drinks.”

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The percentage of empty calories being consumed also went up with age, meaning that children aged two were less likely to eat empty calories than their 18-year-old equivalents.

This could be down to many reasons, but it’s likely to be due to the increased freedom to eat as you please throughout secondary school and into university.

As the children got older, their choice of empty calories changed.

The sources swapped from beverages such as fruit drinks and flavoured milks to foods such as pizza and sweet bakery products.

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The research underpins important progress in childhood obesity, with the researchers due to present their findings at a virtual conference hosted by the American Society of Nutrition.

It’s hoped that the researcher’s recommendations will encourage further education about what constitutes as empty calories and why they should be avoided.

Recently, a debate into whether or not packed lunches should be banned from schools was met with fierce advocacy on both sides.

It’s claimed that they are contributing to childhood obesity, but people opposing the ban suggest that greater emphasis is placed on parents understanding of what constitutes as a healthy packed lunch.